By Thomas Becker
The great thing about preseason rankings is it gives teams an opportunity to prove their critics wrong.
The UPEI Panthers are one of those teams.
When the inaugural AUS coaches' poll was released earlier this week, UPEI sat in 8th place—two spots out of the playoffs. No doubt a frustrating number, but one that should serve as a motivator going forward.
"It definitely motivates the team. It gives us that extra push as underdogs," said centre back Danielle Younker. "The league may not place us high on that list, but we set high standards for ourselves."
Younker and Jennifer Balderston—both in their fifth and final year of eligibility—have seen the same story unfold again and again and are itching to know what it's like to contend for a championship.
"Going four years without making the playoffs is very disappointing," Younker said. "This is my final chance to compete in the playoffs and I'm very hopeful for our team and excited to challenge for a spot."
To push for that elusive postseason berth, UPEI brought in former Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union (CIAU) Most Valuable Player and UPEI Sports Hall of Fame member, Glen Miller, to serve as their new head coach.
Following his impressive playing career, Miller built up a strong resumé from the sidelines. Most recently, he led Colonel Gray High School's AAA girls soccer team (2008–2016), the Winsloe-Charlottetown (WC) senior women's premier team (2016), and WC's under-18 girls premier team (2013–15). And in 2009-10, he was named the P.E.I. School Athletic Association Coach of the Year.
Miller's style of play favours possession and throughout training camp he's been stressing the importance of ball control to limit the opponents' chances, while making the most of their own. Another point of emphasis has been commitment to team and leaving nothing behind.
"We have a good group of women with a great attitude," he said. "When they're training or playing in a game, I want them to commit every ounce of energy they have."
During the offseason, Miller tapped into P.E.I.'s pool of talent and was able to nab top prospect, Caitlyn McCloskey. She's another athlete who's demonstrated the skillset and commitment her coach is looking for and she's figured to be an important part of the midfield for years to come.
"It's great when we can keep our Island kids at UPEI," Miller said. "As a former Panther, I always found it to be an honour and a privilege to play for your home province."
Another way some Panthers have shown their commitment is by the sacrifices they made.
After a breakout season in 2018, where she deposited three goals as a striker, Lauren Clark moved to centre midfield to become the facilitator the team needs. Miller believes her skillset translates better at the vital position, where she could become a gamechanger.
"It's one of those things where you can play her striker and she'll do a good job, or you can play her centre mid and change the face of the game."
In just her third-year, Clark has emerged as a leader and is an example of how hard work and dedication pays off. She's confident her younger teammates can do the same, including Maddie Hurley and Olivia Cummings, who showed flashes of greatness as offensive threats.
"It's important that young players on the team have confidence. The transition to the AUS can be tough, but the group of women we have on the team are very supportive and encouraging," Clark said. "Maddie and Olivia are two former rookies who took that next step and became impactful players in our lineup."
On the defensive end, Balderston shifted to centre back despite playing most of her AUS career in midfield. After allowing the third most goals in the league (26) and having played the position before, the veteran seemed like a logical choice to help secure the back end. With Younker by her side and Amanda Stanyer's steady hands in goal, the defence could be a strength in 2019.
"When it comes to defending, we need to be ruthless and be willing to battle," Younker said. "Everyone needs to do their part on all the pieces, like one-v-ones, recovering and winning the ball."
Now, with the pieces in place and a new vision to get behind the Panthers look to turn past failures into future successes.
"If we play to our strengths and compete every game, there's no reason we shouldn't make playoffs," Clark said.
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